Mar 1, 2014

Horizontal alternatives to vertical lists

Photo by Tzvi Meller
As much as it seems counter-intuitive, teaching new vocabulary in semantic sets (e.g. jobs: doctor, teacher, lawyer etc. or colours: red, blue, yellow etc.) does not facilitate learning. As far back as in the 1990s, research showed that teaching semantically related items is counter-productive. Have these findings been taken on board? Of course not! New vocabulary in elementary level coursebooks is routinely presented in lists of semantically related items.

Semantic sets and interference

In 1993, Thomas Tinkham investigated the effect of learning new words under two conditions. One group received a list of words belonging to the same semantic set while the other was given random, semantically unrelated words. Tinkham revealed that list-learning of unrelated words yielded better results as the second group performed significantly better when they were asked to recalled the target words. A few years later, Rob Waring (1997) replicated the experiment with two groups of Japanese learners of English and confirmed the results. More recently, Erten and Tekin (2008) in their study of 60 Turkish 4th graders, found the same negative effect on recall and learning when new words were grouped according to semantic categories.

The results of these studies are usually interpreted in the light of Interference theory which states that similarity between the items learned at the same time hinders learning and retention. In vocabulary teaching it means that when words learned at the same time are closely related or share common characteristics they will interfere with each other. You have probably observed the phenomenon of learners remembering the words they have learned (or, rather, their forms: how a word is spelled or pronounced) and the meanings but confusing which word goes with each meaning.

However, there are other reasons why learning lists of semantically related words is counter-productive. Presenting words in such lists, related by virtue of their belonging to the same superordinate category (shirt, skirt, trousers - CLOTHES), doesn’t give the learner much information about how the words in a list should be used. The same is true of other paradigmatic (vertical) relationships, such as synonyms and antonyms. (See my post on paradigmatic and syntagmatic relationships HERE).

Semantic sets in coursebooks

Despite the above arguments, coursebooks – especially at elementary levels – still organize new vocabulary in semantic lists. What can teachers do to counter-balance the negative effect of semantic clustering? This is the question we tried to answer with two groups of Primary school teachers I’ve been working with this year on an INSET course in vocabulary teaching. We started by brainstorming kinds of vocabulary items that are commonly presented in coursebooks in lists and came up with the following categories:



Classroom objects


Developing alternatives 

We then looked at how we can teach new vocabulary horizontally instead of presenting vertical lists, i.e. how to teach new words with the words they are likely to go with (co-text) rather than with other words sharing the same superordinate concept. Colours seemed to be an easy category to start with.


Instead of teaching a list of, say, six colours, it would be more effective to focus on just three at a time and present these alongside the nouns they can go with, i.e. adjective + noun collocations.

Photo by @ij64 via eltpics on Flickr
For example,
blue sky
red dress or flower
black coffee

followed by another three in the following lesson:
green grass
yellow sand
white snow

We felt that white snow perhaps may not have immediate relevance for primary school pupils in a hot Mediterranean country, so white clouds was suggested instead. White clouds can also combine with blue sky (white clouds in the blue sky) providing the learner with immediately useable language for describing, for example, a picture of a landscape. Note also how alliterative patterns in red dress and green grass can serve as mnemonic devices which have been shown to facilitate learning (Boers & Lindstromberg 2005)


Colours can also combine easily with animals, especially if you use the Brown Bear story.

Here, it is advisable not to teach the whole story to children but introduce 3-4 animals (with their colours) at a time.

Brown Bear, Red Bird, Yellow Duck in the first lesson, and then gradually add other colour+animal combinations:
Blue Horse, Green Frog, Purple Cat, White Dog, Black Sheep etc.


Clothes was not an easy category to convert into “horizontal” teaching. The following pattern came to mind:

STUDENT NAME is wearing 
a shirt
a skirt
a hat

This is clearly a step in the right direction as here we provide also a useful grammatical structure the new words can be slotted in but a semantic list still remains a long list.

Again, an alternative can be combining words for clothes with colours using the items of clothing your students are wearing and presenting them in the same incremental fashion (three at a time) as colours + animals combinations.

Classroom objects

Photo by aClilToClimb 
via eltpics on Flickr
Once again, one possibility is dividing a long list into two and combining the items with colours using the real objects (realia) students happen to have with them. Or adding the following grammar to the list:

Have you got a(n) …  / Do you have a(n) … ?
or – depending on the level of the learner -
Can I use your …?
Can I borrow your …?


There are many ways these can be extended horizontally, for example:

I always take the bus to school / I go to school by bus

In this video Herbert Puchta teaches new words and provides collocations for them using Total Physical Response (TPR)

Similar action stories can be created with:
get on/off the bus/train/plane
drive a car/van
ride a bike 


This group often has cognates (=words that are the same across languages) such as pizza and hamburger. Some patterns that food items can be taught with are the following:

I eat
I have
I like




These patterns also helps relate names of different foods to meals they are likely to be eaten for, thus creating mental associations between words. For example, eggs for breakfast, pasta for supper

Hania Kryzsewska in her article Chunking for Beginners suggests teaching different food names with countries they come from. By the way, countries are another category which tends to be presented in lists. Hania’s horizontal alternatives would look something like this:

Tea from China
Pizza from Italy
Wine from France
Football from Brazil
Cars from Germany
Kangaroos from Australia

Note that the list contains not only names of food but other unrelated items.

I hope the above suggestions help you add a “horizontal” aspect to your vocabulary teaching. I would like to thank my course participants for their contributions and ideas, and generally being lovely groups to work with. I hope you learned from the course as much as I learned from you!

For more suggestions on alternatives to vertical lists, see Andrew Walkley’s posts The problems of lexical sets and some alternative approaches and Developing Lexical Sets


Boers, F., & Lindstromberg, S. (2005). Finding ways to make phrase-learning feasible: The mnemonic effect of alliteration. System, 33(2), 225–238

Erten, İ. H., & Tekin, M. (2008). Effects on vocabulary acquisition of presenting new words in semantic sets versus semantically unrelated sets. System, 36(3), 407–422

Tinkham, T. (1993). The effect of semantic clustering on the learning of second language vocabulary. System, 21(3), 371–380

Waring, R. (1997). The negative effects of learning words in semantic sets: A replication. System, 25(2), 261–274


  1. A nice and thorough post, Leo. Generally, it's all about context, isn't it? For example, I'd find it difficult to teach any level a list of items like those in the category of transport. Far more likely to present it an example sentence frame,
    'I come to college by ...' or
    '... is [comparative verb form] than ...'
    as you suggest.

    I teach Pre-Entry (from almost nothing to bordering elementary) this year for one lesson a week, and this is the approach I use a lot of the time. I'm also expected to incorporate a bit of maths teaching as well, so vocab and contexts often revolve around areas of numeracy. Last Tuesday we looked at fractions through pizza!!

  2. Thank you for your comment.
    I also wouldn't teach it like this but many do. When I was learning Spanish we were given once a list of 50 food names!

    Fractions through pizza? Sounds fun. Would you call it CLIL then?

    Good to have you here, Mike!

  3. Great post! Not sure why we'd want to teach three collocations at once rather than one at a time - any thoughts on that?
    Really glad to see this issue addressed - and in such a practical way too. Another thought - I think stories provide great potential for 'horizontal' learning too.

    1. Thank you for your comment and compliment!
      I think students won't make much progress if they learn one new collocation per lesson :) so 3 two-word collocations was sort of a compromise instead of 6 single words belonging to the same semantic set. But I see your point - pls see my reply to Tyson's comment below.

      Also agree with you on using stories.

      Thank you for stopping by, Vicki.

  4. Interesting. I get the point of it and the downside of teaching semantic sets. However, in the examples you give, I wonder if your alternatives in some cases remain too closely to the issue. Using a semantic context (e.g. clothes) does little to differentiate this from the original problem. Replacing 'a hat' with 'a shirt' yet all the other words in the sentence remaining the same is no different than just giving students a semantic set of clothes or pointing to them with different photos in a coursebook. There are no differentiating characteristics to the words, unless maybe you add 'on her head' or 'on her feet', which aren't authentic things to say.

    Maybe I'm not seeing the real difference.

    1. Hi Tyson, thank you for your comment and sorry if my suggestions were not very clear. Something to work on if I ever decide to turn this post into an article!

      I see what you mean by my alternatives being to close to the original problem. Especially when it comes to clothes. As I said in the post, it was probably the most difficult category.

      I think providing co-text / pattern is a step in the right direction. True, it still leaves us with the problem of differentiating between the items. So tackling them 2-3 at a time instead of the whole set of 6-8 is a way to go, I thin.

      Of course, ideally, it'd be best to teach completely unrelated items in one lesson:
      He is wearing a blue shirt
      red flower
      come to school by bus
      I like eggs for breakfast

      but most of the teachers I was working on (and many other school teachers around the world for that matter!) are constrained by the syllabus and textbooks which present new vocabulary in semantic sets. So my ideas were aimed at helping them adapt the textbooks they are using.


    2. Gotcha. I was thinking that completely different items would be the way to go, but I see your point regarding a coursebook syllabus.

  5. Brown Bear has always been a massive hit with the kids I teach. They seem to drink it in and have it engrained in their memory after seeing/hearing it just a few times. They love to read/repeat aloud while I turn the pages.

    1. I have very little experience teaching very young learners but when once I used Brown Bear and it was the highlight of the lesson! :)

  6. This is really useful, Leo. Complete with ideas and references. I appreciate it!

    1. Thank you, Naomi.
      I am glad you found it useful

  7. Hi Leo,

    I'm always amazed at how the research on this issue is just ignored when it comes to teaching students in class. In a similar vein, phonological similarities also produce interference when it comes to working memory. So a word list with similar sounding words is also going to create all kinds of inteference (Baddeley's "Working memory and language: an overview" is a great read for this kind of stuff). I guess, in the end, I'm left wondering if there any point in preparing word lists at all. Does vocabulary drive communication or does it emerge organically from communication? If it is emergent, isn't it just better to help students become aware of it as it arrises and create their own vocabulary lists? And wouldn't teaching students how to use the General Service List or New General Service List as a guidpost to keep them focused on the most frequent words be enough?

    I don't have any answers. I always struggle with teaching vocabulary. But at this moment, most of what I do is helping students develop the skills to learn vocabulary on their own in the way that best suits them. Lots of word card stuf. Teaching how to use a learner dictionary and be aware of collocations. Key word techniques. Unfortunately (or fortunately), next year I will have to start working with a coursebook again. And it does have lexical sets. So at least I have a handful of ideas for how to help the students learn the words which have been pre-selected for them.


    1. Hi Kevin,

      Thank you for your comments - I'll start from the end. I am all for promoting learner autonomy which subsumes effective dictionary use, collocation awareness etc. but this post was written mainly with primary school teachers in mind - that's where most vocabulary tends to be organised in semantic sets- so not much autonomy there yet considering the age.

      Now, despite what Dogmeticians might claim about language emerging from communication, English vocabulary is enormous and learning it is a daunting task. You can't just wait for new words to naturally come up in class - they have to be proactively taught. To this end, GSL and NGSL are useful but mainly as a guidance for materials writers. From my experience of giving learners lists of words and asking them to learn them they almost always get usage wrong. And I've already expressed my reservations about it on this blog, for example, in this post: Teaching vocabulary out of context

      Lastly, I haven't read Baddeley's book but I believe Prof Batia Laufer was one of the first researchers who drew attention to the concept of synforms (her own term) and the difficulty they cause for ESL/EFL learners, e.g diary/dairy, quite/quit etc.

      Thank you for stopping by and joining in the discussion, Kevin!

    2. Leo,

      Thanks for taking the time to give me such a complete answer. You were so right, I was kind of blinded by my context and forgot who this post was for. And in fact, I work in a kind of strange school in which many of the students have very minimal school/academic experience, so many times my autonomy training doesn't start showing results for a year or more (if ever). I often worry about how to teach vocab and have been trying to be more proactive about it. And your response is helping me to realize that carving out time and pre-selecting vocabulary is probably necessary and no amount of training is going to fill the students need to learn a relatively large amount of basic vocab in a short amount of time. So thanks for the push as well as ideas for how I can make the explicit instruction more effective.

      And thanks for ponting me to Prof Laufer's work. I think some of her articles are going to be very useful as I prepare for next semester.

      Happy to join the conversation and hope I wasn't too much of a distraction.


  8. This is a really useful post, Leo, and yet more proof of how backward most published materials are in their ways!

    I would suggest, however, that there is an argument for drawing students' attention to recurring patterns in lexical sets, perhaps after they've initially encountered each item separately. An example would be the -er suffix that denotes many professions (carpenter, teacher, footballer, etc.). Perhaps then they might get the best of both worlds?


    1. Hi Matt,

      Sure. My practical ideas and what research suggests concern only the initial encounter with new items. There's nothing wrong with consolidating vocabulary through semantic sets and drawing students' attention to recurring patterns, like -er suffix that you pointed out.

      Thank you for reading the post and adding your ideas!

  9. Fascinating post! I never knew about all this research into lexical sets. It seems counter-intuitive, but you don't argue with solid research results. I agree with Kevin, though, that it's mind-boggling that such research results are simply ignored by coursebook writers.
    Thanks for a great post. I might need to rethink my approach to teaching lexis.
    If anyone's interested or looking for ideas how to recycle vocabulary in class and clarify meaning of new lexis, here are two posts I've written on it. I'd be interested to hear what your thoughts are.
    Clarifying meaning:
    Recycling vocabulary:

    1. Hi Marek

      Thank you for your comment. I've read both of your posts and recommended one to the teachers on my course - the ones I was referring to above. I also discovered Memrise thanks to your blog post and thought it would be the next best thing after Quizlet (that is if Quizlet becomes paid) but I wasn't that impressed with it. In a way, you can see why from this post.

      Thank you for stopping by!

  10. Great post, Leo.
    I thoroughly enjoyed the useful videos, as will the Primary School teachers that we work with.

    1. Thank you, David.
      Besides the TPR video above, I found Helbling Languages have loads of other videos on their youtube channel.

  11. Thank you, Leo. I teach english for Specific Purporses. In my case I teach culinary English. So the day I teach kitchen equipment I actually go into the learning kitchen of the school and we learn the names of the items and how we use them in the actual context of their work. it certianly helps them to remember the names of the appliances and utensils, especially if we also make something together and use the English names for the items.

  12. I have been reading "Vocabulary Myths" by Keith Folse and this is the first topic he brings up. He suggests learning vocabulary topically rather than semantically. For example, a theme could be shipping and words can include verbs like cost, comes to; phrases like how much? or do you have any?; and other words like nouns such as discount, delivery, etc. (These were all of the top of my head.) This way, the language is very different but they are also linked.

    I also agree that vocabulary alone is useless. When a words usage is obvious, I usually add very lityle, but when I know of useful collocation or colligation I'll include this info. I typically use,, and StringNet in class.

  13. Learning new words have always been burdensome for many students, as it is an abstract skill. Therefore, just learning new words without keeping it in the memory will put all your efforts in vain. So visit for learning new words with thematic learning with personalized sessions. Stay connected.

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